With big changes to the temporary foreign workers program coming into effect at the start of the month, much attention is being paid to the contentious practice.
As the spotlight on the system has grown, so too has confusion regarding the TFWP’s less controversial cousin, the seasonal agricultural workers program, said Mark Wales, a board member for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and an expert in the industry’s labour practices.
“It’s not unusual (for people) to get it mixed up,” he said. “It often happens and there are many people out there who intentionally try to mix it up. The seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP) has been running for over 40 years now and it falls under the temporary foreign workers banner, but it is a much older program.”
There are major differences between the two programs, Wales said, which has seen the SAWP become “the Cadillac of programs,” with the TFWP a magnet for scandal and abuse.
“(SAWP) has always been a very, very structured program and a very, very managed program and there are a number of players involved,” Wales explained. “There are the governments themselves, Canada, the islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago) and Mexico, there’s an organization called FARMS (Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services).”
While both programs are designed to help employers fill job vacancies that they cannot find Canadian workers for, the big difference is that SAWP is set up to allow for ongoing and indefinite employee-employer relationships, while the TFWP is supposed to be a short term solution, Wales explained.
Of course, the type of labour allowed by each also differs, with SAWP geared specifically towards the agricultural sector, where the nature of the work- physically strenuous and demanding- the location of the operations -often rural and remote- along with what is typically seen as marginal compensation, makes the free market system inadequate.
And so while the SAWP allows for workers to come up for maximum eight-month stints, year after year for as long as they so desire, things weren’t so cut and dry with the TFWP.
But new regulation implemented by the federal government on April 1 will now see workers with the latter limited to four year terms, at which point the worker will need to return to their home country for a minimum of four years before being eligible for the program again.
It was an overreaction, academics like University of Guelph food policy professor Sylvain Charlebois have argued, which could have a negative impact on a number of industries, including the food processing sector.
What it won’t do, however, is impact in any way the many farmers in the region and beyond who employ seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean through the SAWP.
One business involved in that program is St. Jacobs based Martin’s Family Fruit Farms, which employs some 80-115 workers at their apple orchards throughout the year, with most of the labour brought in for the harvest in the late summer and early fall.
“We have some guys that come for an eight month period that come in the middle of March and they help us with the pruning and the orchard care through the spring and summer,” said Steve Martin, the company’s retail sales manager. “The reason the program is so important is because the vast amount of rural work in farming and the horticulture end of it anyway, is very temporary and very rural. So take the Tilsonberg area where we have most of our farms, that area alone probably takes in, I’m guessing, 2,000-3,000 people each year during harvest time, and it’s a long way from any urban areas. So even if there were (Canadians) available, where would you be able to find facilities to be able to move families to move them for the one or two months they’re needed, and then move them back?”
People sometimes ask, “aren’t there Canadian who can do the work?” Martin said. But the fact of the matter is that “Some of it is very skilled labour and the Canadians that could do the work or would be capable, they already have full time jobs and they’re not looking for seasonal or part time work.”
Even still, every job Martin’s Family Fruit Farm fills with the program needs to be advertised first here in Canada. And sometimes there is a good match. But since they started in the program back in 1997, they have employed countless foreign workers through the program who have been great for the company.
And what’s good for companies like Martin’s, is good for the people of Canada, posits agricultural lobbyists like Wales and food policy academics like Charlebois.